Wood County among few with holding center

PARKERSBURG – Wood County may be the only county in the state maintaining a holding center around the clock.

County officials have in the past discussed cutting costs, and those discussions have included cutting staff at the center or eliminating it.

The commission is discussing options on what will become of the former Second Street former holding center. Demolition bids were sought and the county is considering putting in a parking lot that could potentially provide metered and leased parking.

In 2001 after the regional jails were established, the facility that once was the county jail was converted into a holding facility.

“The Holding Center is a county-run facility that maintains custody of prisoners and arrestees. Those who are arrested here are processed by the police agencies, then brought to us to be detained before being taken before a judge for arraignment, or other disposition. In addition, every weekday, the (North Central) regional jail transports Wood County prisoners here to be held for hearings in court, meetings with their attorney, Drug Court,” said Steve Stephens, chief of confinement operations.

Stephens oversees the Holding Center and the Home Confinement Program housed there.

The Home Confinement Program is an alternative to jail providing electronic supervision of individuals placed in the program by the courts. There is a separate staff for the home confinement program.

While the center is considered a 12-hour facility, Stephens said it operates around the clock.

“We are actually open 24 hours a day, that 12-hour time is the maximum length of time for holding one prisoner,” Stephens said.

Commissioner Blair Couch said according to the West Virginia Association of Counties, Wood is the only county in the state which still operates a holding center that doesn’t close.

“The majority of the other holding centers only operate during court hours then transport all the prisoners to the regional jail. Some of the counties have a regional jail that is close to them, but in other counties, they shut it down and transport when they pick up someone,” Couch said.

“Wood County has chosen to keep ours open, at a cost. There are benefits, but there are also costs associated with that. You have to weigh the cost to the county if the sheriff’s department had to drive to regional jail everytime they make an arrest versus keeping the holding center here open. Then there’s the benefit the municipalities get. If they arrest someone at 2 a.m. they are not stuck with transporting them to regional, that’s a cost savings and doesn’t tie up an officer,” Couch said.

“In the past, there was some talk of trying to find ways for the cities to help with the costs, but that hasn’t gone anywhere. But as budgets get tighter, these discussions have to happen,” Couch said.

“We toured the Putnam County facility, they just have two rooms with benches. We have individual cells. We spent a lot of money to provide a facility to hold people for several hours – 12 maximum – in a safe environment. Other counties just provide a few rooms designed to hold the individuals until their hearing then they are returned to regional jail and they only operate Monday through Friday during court hours,” Couch said.

Commissioner Steve Gainer has repeatedly questioned the need for the numbers of staff at the facility, saying the commission was told when the new scaled-back holding center facility within the Justice Center was built, that fewer staff would be needed to man the center.

In January 2012 the holding center and confinement operations along with the law enforcement offices of the sheriff’s department and magistrate court were moved into the new Wood County Justice Center.

“We try to have three on staff at a time, there needs to be at least one correctional officer in the control center. But if there’s a problem sometimes that individual has to go out and assist,” Stephens said.

With an increased number of arrestees coming in on meth or bath salts who become agitated, at times violent with officers, it sometimes requires numerous officers to subdue them, he said.

“These individuals on bath salts and meth think they are invincible and you cannot reason with them. We’ve had people in here try to choke themselves, or become violent with the officers, and incidents where officers from outside had to be called in to assist in restraining someone who was out of control,” Stephens said.

The holding center has 13 officers, but with injuries, vacation and sick leave, Stephens said it’s sometimes hard to find enough staff to ensure a safe environment. It’s also difficult keeping officers due to the high stress nature of the job.

“We’ve lost some for better-paying jobs,” Stephens said.

“We have to have officers here to handle these situations and you never know when something is going to happen,” Stephens said. “Some days we may have no prisoners in here, other days, there are several and we can’t control that and if someone comes in who is high you can’t have an officer standing by at their house and expect to get them in here in time to help.”

Correctional officers also clean and sanitize cells, clean up after inmates, do laundry, answer phones, serve breakfast and lunch and monitor the security cameras.

“I asked the architectural firms’ own security expert, right in front of the county commissioners during the construction of the justice center, and he said we need a minimum of three officers per shift to adequately staff,” Stephens said.

According to county records, the total budget for the Holding Center for 2013-2014, is $758,823. Last year’s budget was $748,569.

The numbers of regional jail inmates and arrestees at the holding center varies.

In July, there were 169 new arrestees brought to the center. Of those, 90 were able to post bond and got out before being transported to regional jail. Some are unable to make their bond, or are being held without bond pending a court appearance.

That 169 does not include regional jail inmates brought back to Wood County to be held pending a court appearance.

Stephens said eliminating the holding center would mean more regional jail expenses, plus police agencies would have to transport arrestees themselves, costing more money in time, fuel, wear and tear on vehicles and taking officers off their other duties here.

“We are a large county, we have a lot of arrests, the regional jail is 45 miles away, that’s a 90-mile round trip. That’s a long time to take a police officer off the road to transport a prisoner, plus the time to get them turned over, that was the reason for having the holding center to begin with,” Stephens said, noting for the smaller police departments it would be even more of a strain to take an officer off duty.

During a recent meeting on how the county could reduce its regional jail bill, Circuit Judge J.D. Beane said the holding center has meant some cost savings by enabling individuals who have been arrested to have more time to try and arrange bond before having to go to the regional jail.

“While I was at Vienna, there was talk about shutting down the holding center. I was one of the chiefs that was here at the county pleading with them. It would have put us in a bind to deal with that,” Stephens said. “When you only have one or two officers working on a shift, by the time you go to the regional jail and back it could be four hours or more. Once you get there it depends on who is in line before you. You have to wait in the booking area, then they have to be medically screened and then there is paperwork that has to be signed before you can transfer custody to them,” Stephens said.

Stephens said the largest number of arrestees usually comes in from the Parkersburg Police Department. For the month of July, Parkersburg had 90; sheriff, 51; house arrest, six; Williamstown, one; Vienna, eight; state police, five; task force, three; West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, one; a bondsman had two; and probation had two.

Stephens said the holding center also is saving the county money on its regional jail bill.

For June, there were 190 brought to the holding center and of those 104 bonded out.

“At one point, in one day, we saved the county $5,075 because those individuals bonded out, and didn’t go to the regional jail. If you are there for one minute, you are charged for a day,” Stephens said.

In May the holding center saw 160 arrestees with 90 bonding out; April, 154, with 80 bonding out; March had 170, 98 bonded out; in February, there were 159 arrestees with 97 bonding out; January, 199 with 110 getting out on bond.

In 1974, the facility opened and remained in service until 2001 when the regional jail authority was formed and all inmates serving sentences were transferred to the North Central Regional Jail at Greenwood in Doddridge County.

The facility jail then became a 12-hour holding center. The Home Confinement Program began in the laste 1980s.